Unless the ambient environment is a “character” in your piece, find a quiet space to do your recording. Try to deaden the ambient audio as much as possible and reduce any sound from your own voice from reflecting off the walls. Setting your recorder on a bed is a good option. In the field, many radio reporters will use a hotel closet with a coat draped over their head to create a recording space. Jane Lindholm from NPR set up a couple of sofa cushions and some camping pads as her home studio during the quarantine. I actually use a Thermarest Z-Lite sleeping pad as a sound absorber in audio interviews.
Recorders and Microphones
I use a shotgun mic in a shock mount, either on a small tabletop tripod for static interviews or in a pistol grip for mobile field recording. The mic is jacked into a digital recorder with an XLR cable. Try not to hold a microphone directly with your hand unless you’ve got a shock mount.
If you don’t have fancy recording equipment an Apple iPad or iPhone makes a pretty good field recorder. The Voice Memo app will do but I prefer the Røde Reporter app so that I can set levels manually. Avoid using a laptop computer as a recorder. The CPU cooling fans will show up in your recordings.
Some of you may have digital recorders from manufacturers such as Zoom and Tascam. These are great little recorders and their omni microphones are good for capturing ambience and two-person conversations in the field. However, because these mics are omnidirectional they pick up everything in the environment, even from behind the mic. If you must use the built-in mics on these recorders, please make sure you’ve chosen a quiet recording space, your mouth is one “hang loose” hand away from the mic, and you’ve set your levels properly (see below). This will minimize the amount of echo and any ambient sounds in your voice recordings.
Røde and other manufacturers also make a selection of microphones that connect directly to your Apple or Android phone or tablet. Many of these are capable of good results.
Wind noise may be a problem if you’re recording outside and will produce a jarring rumble effect on tape. Use a foam windscreen or a “dead cat” to reduce the wind’s appearance in your tape. Many/most handheld recorders and microphones come with some sort of screen, but you can purchase or build your own inexpensively.
Record in 48kHz 24-bit WAV. Don’t record in a compressed format like MP3 or AAC. While 44.1kHz is standard for podcast and radio broadcast, 48kHz is compatible with video production in case you want to repurpose your audio later and is easily downsampled in post production.
Avoid nasty surprises and monitor your recordings with a good set of headphones. Don’t use the tiny earbuds that came with your phone; get some nice headphones that encapsulate your ears and isolate you from ambient noise. The Sony MDR-7506 is a great set of headphones for field recording.
Monitoring with headphones may not be possible given the remote working conditions imposed upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s an ideal to strive for.
Pretend you’re a surfer and make a “hang loose” sign with your hand. Now place your mouth about the distance of the tip of your pinky finger to the tip of your thumb away from the microphone. Your breath striking the microphone directly will produce a loud rumbling effect on your recordings, so offset your mouth slightly to the left or right. This will help reduce the appearance of plosives.
If possible, record with software that features an audio meter. Watch the meter as you record. Set your input level so that the peaks are just barely touching the yellow section of the meter (see right). If you hit red the level is too high. Ideally, you want the peaks to top out between -6 and -12dB.
Capture thirty seconds to one minute of “room tone” (ambient noise without any dialogue) both before and after your recording. This helps us patch together pieces of an interview and repair problem sections.
This is so important, I’m going to say it again: seriously, please capture some room tone. :-)
A brand new set of challenges arise when we have to interview someone remotely. How do you get a good quality recording of someone that is not in the same room as you? The way we traditionally handle this is a technique called Tape Sync. The interview is carried out over the phone with both participants recording their side of conversation locally. The recordings are then combined in post-production and edited to sound as though the participants are talking in the same room.
Also record your conversation using your video chat client’s built-in recording function so that we have a backup and a reference track to sync the two, separate local recordings.
Transom’s article Getting Good Tape (Sync) has more details.
Let Your Subject Talk
A lot of the really good stuff in an interview will come out of nowhere when you allow your subject to just talk. Also, don’t interrupt -- give them the space and try to avoid talking under or over them with verbal “uh-huhs”. It’s distracting to the listener and can make editing the tape in post more difficult, especially if we’re syncing up two separate tracks recorded remotely.
Slow Down -- Relax!
Most of us speak too quickly when we make recordings. It’s nerves. Try to slow down and make it conversational as if you’re talking with your best friend. Don’t worry about making mistakes or mangling your words -- just take a deep breath and try it again. We can edit it in post to make you sound like a seasoned radio announcer.
Deliver the Files
Save the WAV files -- don’t edit them! If your interviewees are sending files to you, ask for WAVs, however if they can only send you compressed formats you don’t need to convert them: simply include the original formats in your submission and post them to a file transfer service you prefer. Dropbox, Google Drive, WeTransfer -- all are fine options.
If you’re interested in interviewing people remotely over the internet, let me know. I’ve got suggestions on software and online platforms you can use.
Please feel free to ask me questions. I’m available at firstname.lastname@example.org.